Soon after my first day on the job as Miami-Dade aviation director almost a year ago, I established a list of pressing customer-service goals that were essential to protecting Miami International Airport’s standing as our community’s gateway to the world and top economic engine.
At the top of that list was reforming our outdated taxi service, second was improving the federal inspection experience for those arriving at MIA from abroad. I am proud to say that on Jan. 29, Miami-Dade County Commissioners passed sweeping legislation that will require taxi operators at MIA to outfit their vehicles with credit-card readers, a GPS-based dispatch system, SunPass transponders and digital security cameras. They will have to observe a stringent dress code and customer-service standards.
This was an historic victory for our community, our airport and, most of all, our passengers. Reforms will be phased in by 2015.
Within the last year, significant gains have also been made in our international-arrivals process, despite the fact that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been unable to sufficiently staff our federal inspection facilities.
Thirty-six automated passport-control kiosks, costing the Aviation Department $3.5 million, were installed in our North Terminal federal inspection facility in November. Since then, average wait times for U.S. citizens arriving at MIA from abroad have decreased 40 percent.
To assist passengers with this new service and queue management in general, the Aviation Department has assigned additional staff to the kiosk area as well. Additionally, the Aviation Department in December began participating in a federal pilot program that allows us to pay CBP for overtime officers during projected peak travel times. While we view this program as a short-term solution of last resort, we have tested its capability recently and will continue to do so as long as we see substantive results from CBP.
Unfortunately, despite the Aviation Department’s funding and personnel investments — and despite the fact that MIA has been America’s fastest-growing airport for international travel since 2007 — CBP’s headcount has remained mostly flat.
Consequently, the agency continues to frequently understaff our processing areas, deliver frustrating average wait times for our customers and, in the end, provide poor customer experiences. Because these staffing issues are largely beyond the control of local CBP officials, I will be traveling to Washington D.C. at the end of March to meet with senior Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and CBP leadership and our congressional delegation members to discuss this ongoing problem.
U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has already spearheaded a letter to DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson, signed by each member of the South Florida Congressional Delegation, urging him to take greater action.
With 30-percent growth in international passengers since 2007, an economic impact of almost $33 billion, and an influx of new international routes and airlines year after year, MIA is a success story not only for our community and Florida, but for the nation.
While I recognize CBP’s critical mission of protecting our country and facilitating legitimate trade and travel, staffing at MIA continues to fall short of keeping up with South Florida’s increased international trade and travel demands. Despite the efforts we have taken to mitigate the CBP shortfall, the current situation is no longer sustainable. Sadly, passengers and tour operators threaten to never come back to MIA because of their negative experiences with CBP passport-control areas.
I will share these concerns with our federal partners and make the compelling case for why Miami International Airport requires additional CBP staffing immediately. Ultimately, those who live in and visit our world-class community deserve a world-class experience, and that must begin the moment they arrive at our global gateway.
Emilio T. González is Miami-Dade County’s aviation director.